Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking


Friday, March 5, 2010

Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking

Very soon a new Chris Ware book will be hitting the stands, a volume that most people probably haven’t heard of. It is not by Ware, but it’s about him. It’s a collection of essays titled The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking (University Press of Mississippi, April 2010), edited by Martha B. Kuhlman and David M. Ball.

I’m in the book so I won’t say too much about it except that the editors are very intelligent and the table of contents (pasted below) looks promising. The book will also have a lovely frontispiece by Ivan Brunetti.

As it turns out, my contribution to the book is relevant to the discussions we’ve been having here at Comics Comics about book design and reprints of old comics. My essay is about Ware’s work on the Walt and Skeezix series and the Krazy and Ignatz series, which I try to place in the larger context of the history of comic strip reprint projects and also tie to Ware’s thematic concerns in his own comics with family history, the legacy of the past, and the pathology of the collector mentality.

Here are a few relevant passages from my essay:

My contention is that in restoring artists like King and Herriman to the public spotlight, Ware is engaged in an act of ancestor-creation, of giving a pedigree and lineage to his own work. In other words, Ware’s book designs are a form of canon formation, a way of filling in the gap of missing archival and historical material, and creating for comics a sense of a continuous tradition and lineage….

Innovative artists often invent their own ancestors as a way of giving a pedigree to their work. There is a sense in which Franz Kafka invented Charles Dickens and T.S. Eliot invented John Donne. Prior to Kafka, Dickens was read as a popular entertainer who specialized in heart-warming picturesque tales. Kafka’s fictions and comments on Dickens recast the Victorian novelist as the dark writer of claustrophobic allegories such as Bleak House. Similarly, Eliot remade John Donne, largely relegated to the status of a literary curiosity, into a major precursor to modernism. In the field of comics, Ware has engaged in a comparable rewriting of the history by offering a new reading of past masters. Challenging the standard view of comics history, which has highlighted the work of realist illustrators such as Hal Foster, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, and Jack Kirby, Ware offers an alternative canon that prizes cartoonists who practice either formal experimentation or focus on everyday life, such as Rodolphe Töpffer, George Herriman, Frank King and Gluyas Williams…

In searching for ancestors in earlier comics and trying to recast the history of comics to highlight work that is similar to his own, Ware is part of a larger effort by like-minded cartoonists of generation. Art Spiegelman, a mentor who offered Ware an early national venue in RAW, has often written on comics from the past and sought to resurrect selected masters, notably Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Cole. The Canadian cartoonist Seth has staked out a claim to the tradition of New Yorker cartooning, Canadian comics, and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts (in the last case, designing a multivolume series that parallels what Ware has done with King and Herriman). Chester Brown, another Canadian cartoonist, has creatively appropriated the style of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie. In effect, Ware belongs to a cohort of contemporary cartoonists who are both doing innovative work in the present and in the process re-writing and re-mapping the history of comics….

All of this goes towards explaining why I don’t share – in fact, I can’t even fathom – the objections to Chris Ware’s design on several reprint projects; or Seth’s design on the Peanuts series, the Doug Wright book, and the John Stanley library; or Adrian Tomine’s work on the Tatsumi series; or Chip Kidd’s various reprint books. In each and every case, we have a talented contemporary artist who is creating a connection between their aesthetic concerns and older classic works.

That’s how art history and literary history gets made: by living artists connecting with the past. Art history is not just a museum full of old paintings of Jesus and the Madonna, it’s the connection between old art and modern visual concerns. Literary history is not just a dusty shelf croaking under the weight of old books, it is the connection between the living literature of the present and old books. By writing Ulysses, James Joyce gave us a new way of reading Homer and Shakespeare (Hamlet is everywhere in Joyce’s great novel). John Updike did a series of books inspired by The Scarlet Letter (A Month of Sundays, Roger’s Version, S); these novels made Hawthorne’s venerable text newly urgent.

In the case of comics, we’re lucky that artists are not just connecting with older works and thereby creating a living tradition, these contemporary cartoonists are designing books that make this connection a felt reality, something we can see and touch and hold in our hands. That’s why the books designed by Ware, Seth, Tomine and Kidd are so great: they make visible and plain how the best work of the past informs the best work of the present.

But enough of my ravings. Here is the table of contents for The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking.

Table of Contents:


Martha B. Kuhlman and David M. Ball, “Chris Ware and the ‘Cult of


Contexts and Canons

1. Jeet Heer, “Inventing Cartooning Ancestors: Ware and the Comics Canon”

2. Jacob Brogan, “Masked Fathers: Jimmy Corrigan and the Superheroic Legacy”

3. Marc Singer, “The Limits of Realism: Alternative Comics and Middlebrow Aesthetics in the Anthologies of Chris Ware”

4. David M. Ball, “Chris Ware’s Failures”

Artistic Intersections

5. Katherine Roeder, “Chris Ware and the Burden of Art History”

6. Martha B. Kuhlman, “In the Comics Workshop: Chris Ware and the Oubapo”

7. Isaac Cates, “Comics and the Grammar of Diagrams”

The Urban Landscape

8. Daniel Worden, “On Modernism’s Ruins: The Architecture of ‘Building Stories’ and Lost Buildings”

9. Matt Godbey, “Chris Ware’s ‘Building Stories,’ Gentrification, and the Lives of/in Houses”

Reading History

10. Joanna Davis-McElligatt, “Confronting the Intersections of Race, Immigration, and Representation in Chris Ware’s Comics”

11. Shawn Gilmore, “Public and Private Histories in Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan”

12. Benjamin Widiss, “Autobiography with Two Heads: Quimby the Mouse”

Everyday Temporalities

13. Georgiana Banita, “Chris Ware and the Pursuit of Slowness”

14. Margaret Fink Berman, “Imagining an Idiosyncratic Belonging: Representing Disability in Chris Ware’s ‘Building Stories’”

15. Peter R. Sattler, “Past Imperfect: ‘Building Stories’ and the Art of Memory”

Contributor Biographies

Chris Ware’s Primary Works: A Guide


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22 Responses to “Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking”
  1. Jack Kirby is a realist? To quote Iris Steensma: “What world you from?!”

  2. Jeet Heer says:

    Well, it depends on which Jack Kirby you’re talking about. Early and middle period Kirby did aspire towards the style of realistic illustration: see Kriby’s various comments praising Raymond and Foster. But of course the great Kirby (as far as I’m concerned) is the one that broke free from that and became almost an abstract artist — the Kirby of the middle to late 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s. But the abstract Kirby was despised by many comics fans. It’s only fairly recently that 1970s Kirby has found a large cohort of vocal advocates, often from artists in the alternative comics camp.

    So, yeah, that sentence should be reworked but I don’t think it’s a mistake to see the celebrations of Kirby that come out of mainstream comics as part of the same tradition that celebrates, for better or worse, Foster, Raymond and Caniff.

  3. Robert Boyd says:

    A similar idea was posited in the famous Borges essay, “Kafka and his Precursors.” Borges doesn’t talk about Kafka identifying precursors, but rather that an one could make a list of literary work that seem to presage Kafka’s own (if one was as erudite as Borges, a fact he humbly excludes from the essay). And the presence of Kafka’s work in the world forces us to see these precursors differently.

    Likewise, I think the work of certain great contemporary cartoonists forces us to reevaluate the history of comics. (Specifically the art history of comics. I once took a course in film history from Thomas McEvilley, and he emphasized that there were many histories of film, but that his course was interested only in the art history of film. Likewise, there are many histories of comics, not all of them relevant to comics art qua art.) This reevaluation must happen whether or not the cartoonist explicitly points the way, as Ware, Seth, Brunetti and Chester Brown have done.

  4. Jeet Heer says:

    @Robert Boyd. You’re exactly right. Borges’ essay was a big influence on my own thinking. At some stage of drafting my essay I did explicitly refer to Borges but later took that out.

  5. Jose-Luis O says:

    I really enjoy this way of looking at the new reprints. Seeing the covers, designed by some of my favorite artists, does help create a ‘canon’ in my mind and just makes me giddy about comics and comics history. They’re designed beautifully, are contemporary, and are, obviously, an homage to the original artist. Also, I believe Borges’ essay can be found here.

  6. Jeet Heer says:

    @Jose-Luis O. Thanks for the link. Borges: “The fact is the every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant. The early Kafka of Betrachtung is less a precursor of the Kafka of somber myths and atrocious institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany.” Borges cites the criticism of T.S. Eliot, which is also important for thinking about these issues.

  7. Evan Dorkin says:

    Re: modern cartoonists design work on reprint series — my only objection, if you want to call it that, is when the personal style of the modern cartoonist/designer overwhelms the personal style of the cartoonist whose work is being presented. And even when that does happen, I don’t get up in arms about it. From a marketing standpoint, it likely helps give the older cartoonist “the rub” (to use a wrestling term) to be valued and associated and presented by these modern, celebrated cartoonists. And the books certainly look better than what we used to see in strip reprints, which was often dismal.

    But in particular, I’m of the opinion that a Seth-designed reprint book sometimes obscures the original creator or creation (To paraphrase Oscar Levant’s quote about George Gershwin, “A Seth-designed book is a Seth book.”) and it can be, for me at least, a little disconcerting. I do like the way they look, but Seth takes center stage in the John Stanley Library designs, imo, rather than the original creators (to a degree I find this to be true of certain Chip Kidd books, as well). I doubt this is a problem for non-nerds, and obviously has only bothered a small percentage of the “comics people” out there. This is just a personal opinion, I’m not saying it’s a terrible approach or a design crime or anything crazy. But it’s almost always bothered me when mainstream comics go with a different artist for their covers, opting to not use the book’s interior artist. I always felt it’s a public statement of a lack of confidence in the interior artists and/or the material, and a vestige of that attitude might be what’s bugging me here. Simply, not enough of what’s inside is represented on the cover, and unlike novels, there are visuals inside doen by other folks, who are being celebrated but sorta nudged aside on the cover design.

    Perhaps it’s dinosaur comic fan thinking on my part, I’ll readily admit to that possibility. But for a further, and I think very real, example, if you hold up the George Sprott book along with the Doug Wright book, it’s kind of hard to tell which book is about a fictional person and which one is about an actual cartoonist, as they both seem to be about Seth’s design. And since he often writes about fictional folk, including fictional cartoonists, those with a middling familiarity with comics and his stuff could be forgiven if they can’t tell which book is by Seth (and about a fictional person) and which is only designed by Seth (and about a real person). Yes, the Wright book has some text that helps, but even so. Big type, minimal illustration, similar approaches, screams “Seth” and murmurs “Doug Wright”. Just saying. And again, not stamping my feet, just making an observation.

  8. Jeet Heer says:

    @Evan Dorkin. Evan: your comments, taken together with Dash’s earlier post, make a pretty reasonable argument against Seth’s design choices. It’s not an argument I ultimately agree with — I love these books too much — but it’s an argument that I respect and I see where you are coming from.

    For me, the fusion of Seth plus Schulz produces a synergy that is richer than each one seperately; the same applies for Seth plus Doug Wright or Seth plus John Stanley. That fusion of two sensibilities makes something new and wonderful.

    But it’s hard for me to be objective about all this, so maybe I should just keep quiet from now on.

  9. patrick ford says:

    The Seth designed book isn’t at all a Seth book (unless it is a book by Seth), but presents itself as a Seth book.
    After you are inside Seth is a hooded utilitarian. He does his job, but you don’t see his face.
    The original Stanley covers not being included (inside) present a mystery?
    It couldn’t be a design choice. The most logical assumption is it has something to do with copyright.
    When can we expect the next Walt and Skeezix? Have those copyright issues been resolved?

  10. Bill Randall says:

    @ Patrick, what is “hooded utilitarian” an allusion to? I’ve never asked Noah, so I may as well ask you. If you’re still here.

    @ Jeet, that Chip Kidd tussle and now Evan’s comment sent me shelfwards. I’ve two beautiful books– the paperback of “Musicophilia” and the American hardcover of “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”— whose designs I loved. Then I checked and found Chip Kidd. I think they offer a better model of design than any of his comics work. His overdesign of the Peanuts & Cole books isn’t his signature. With Seth, his signature’s out of control. Personally I could take it or leave it, but your point about richer textuality’s well-said.

    (Then again, the Ware book’s Gill Sans says “prose” more than Ware’s lettering on, say, that ugly Michael Chabon book. Though I’ll admit my favorite designs lately are NYRB’s.)

    • T. Hodler says:

      Hey Bill— This is a small point, but FYI, Will Staehle is actually the designer behind the Ware-like Michael Chabon covers, so Ware can’t be fairly blamed too much for those. I was fooled by them myself at first. (Jeet actually wrote a bit about Staehle in a post last year.)

      • Bill Randall says:

        @ T. Hodler: Thanks for the Staehle link. He writes, “Lately, I keep trying to remind myself that I’m my most important client.” Apologies to Ware, gastrointestinal juices to Staehle.

  11. evan dorkin says:

    I also like Kidd’s non-comics work more. I really liked his design on the Ring/Spiral/Loop cycle from Vertical, amongst others.

    Also, I’m mainly discussing cover features in my above post, most books meld into the subject matter more readily once the pages are turned, but covers are important in a lot of ways that are pretty obvious so I don’t think I need to get into it.

    Plus it’s after 6 am and I don’t know if I can make any sense at all right now. I just deleted a longer post I wrote because I had no idea where it was going, something about the bat-Manga book that struck me as off-topic.

    Excelsior and all that.

  12. patrick ford says:

    Bill, I borrowed hooded utilitarian because it perfectly describes how I think a designer should go about his work when presenting the artwork of Schulz, Cole, Stanley, etc..
    A hood hides a persons face. Utilitarian means something which is valued for how well it does it’s basic job, rather than it’s style.
    In Noah’s case he’s hardly hooded, but my guess is he picked the name because it could describe a masked slasher.

  13. Jeet Heer says:

    @Patrick Ford. Walt and Skeezix vol. 4 is at the printers right now and should hit book stands in the next 2 months or so. There will be lots of treats in that book.

    • patrick ford says:

      Thanks Jeet. I noticed the solicitation in the most recent preview, but it’s good to know the book is at the printers.
      Amazing strip, and an amazing package due to the wealth of material from the King estate.
      By the time you are done with these I could see a biography of King being assembled from the parts for stand alone publication.

  14. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    Yeah, I immediateley thought of that Borges essay too. And I can totally see your point Jeet about Seth and Chris Ware making explicit the connection between their own work and that of the earlier cartoonists that they admire. But I just wish that in the particular case of Seth and Ware, they didn’t have to be so heavy-handed about it.

    I think Evan Dorkin hit the nail right on the head regarding Seth, all the books he designs end up looking like Seth books, regardless of who actually drew them.

    What I find maddening about the Seth PEANUTS books in particular is that his “design” work goes so far as to alter the original drawings. I’ve never understood the need to add shading/modelling to flat comic strip images. He might as well be drawing moustaches on the characters’ faces.

    But Chris Ware’s KRAZY KAT books bother me even more. At least with Seth’s PEANUTS designs, we can see the influence of Schulz on Seth. Despite the addition of shading/modelling, the covers still at least seem to occur in the Peanuts universe. But it’s difficult for me to see what relation there is between Chris Ware’s KRAZY KAT designs and Herriman’s work. For example, I’m looking at the 1931-1932 volume “A Kat a’Lilt With Song”, which seems to be designed to resemble old sheet-music. I’m aware that old sheet music is one of Ware’s interests, but what exactly does this have to do with KRAZY KAT? Even the covers where Ware includes vaguely southwestern/Native American designs seem wildly inappropriate to me even though I understand what he’s getting at with the design, attempting to echo Herriman’s own use of Native motifs. It’s troubling, because I admire Chris Ware tremendously. But at the same time, I find those covers so annoying that I’ve actually considered removing them and having the books rebound in single volumes.

    That said, I’m not really bothered at all by Ware’s designs for the Walt & Skeezix books where his approach seems much more directly influenced by the look of original strips. The Walt and Skeezix books seem like a genuine extension of Frank King’s cartooning. I look at these books and think “Frank King”. I look at his KRAZY books and think “Chris Ware”.

  15. Jeet Heer says:

    @Daniel C. Parmenter. I discuss some of the issues you raise — notably the difference between Walt and Skeezix on the one hand, and Krazy and Ignatz on the other — at great length in the essay that’s in Chris Ware; Drawing is a Way of Thinking. So I’d encourage you and everyone else interested in the topic to look at the book when it’s out.

    But overall, I think we’re all going to have to learn to agree to disagree on this issue. Some people see these books as Ware/Seth/Tomine/Kidd imposing their sensiblities on old or dead cartoonists. I just can’t agree with that. For me, those books are clearly love letters, and a chance (to pick one example) to share in Seth’s love of Schulz. Since Seth knows more about cartooning than I ever will and has long lingered over Schulz’s work, a chance to share in Seth’s viewpoint helps deepen my own understanding of Peanuts. The same applies to Ware, Tomine, Kidd (and probably some others I’m forgetting). What some people see as arrogance I see as a form of sharing.

  16. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    Jeet, I’m definitely looking forward to the book!

    Jeff Smith’s Walt Kelly reprint covers could also be mentioned. The OUR GANG covers I just glanced at over on the Fantagraphics site appear to be a completely original illustrations, though obviously Kelly-inspired. And yet, perhaps since OUR GANG has its own history and iconography, I find myself not particularly bothered by them.

  17. patrick ford says:

    The reprint books designed by Seth, and Chris Ware can’t really be compared to the Chip Kidd Schulz book which is a different kind of book.
    My problem with the Kidd book is it doesn’t take full advantage of the access it had to the Schulz original art.
    A better comparison might be between the Kidd: Bat-Manga book and the above mentioned reprint books. Since I’ve only flipped through the Bat-Manga book I can’t really comment on it.
    One thing I noticed was the balloons and captions had been translated into English, and were type set with a font that looked like an old fashioned typewriter type face. I wonder how many people actually read the stories, and if not, if they felt the balloons and captions should have been left alone.
    Another thing I’m curious about.
    Does anyone know how much contol over the body a strip reprint book the designer has.
    I’m sure it varies, but for example; would Chris Ware decide how many strips to fit to a page? What the margins were? The dimensions of the book? I assume it was Ware who chose the pale yellow paper the Gasoline Alley, and The Kat Who Walked In Beauty strips are printed on? Does the designer have any input as to the degree of restoration being done on the comics especially when they are in colour?

  18. Jeet Heer says:

    @Daniel C. Parmenter. I’m thinking that a good reason for having Jeff Smith do the covers, aside from the fact that he’s a gifted cartoonist and a Kelly fan, is the design of the character Bucky, the black member of Our Gang. In the context of the 1940s, Kelly was an anti-racist: Bucky is a very positive character, far less a stereotype than, say, Ebony White. But to 21st century eyes, Bucky’s features are a bit to racially caricatured, especially his lips, compared to the white characters. You have to read Kelly’s stories to appreciate what he was trying to do with Bucky. So using Smith made good sense for that reason alone, aside from other factors.

    @Patrick Ford. Chris Ware didn’t design The Kat Who Walked in Beauty book. That was Jacob Covey. But in general, a designer has to work with the publisher to figure out decisions about how many strips per page, etc. It’s both an art and a commerical job, like designing a building.

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